It has been two years since my mom, Ellen, went into a care home, addled by dementia on top of her 50-year affliction with paranoid schizophrenia. I am happy to report that she is doing amazingly well. Her memory is gone, but her spirit is strong and she can be damn funny at times. Now that she is under a doctor’s care and is taking an anti-psychotic medication, she is thriving, considering the circumstances. Last month, she had her 76th birthday.
It has also been two years since a benevolent social worker gracefully reunited me and my sister with our mom, after a 17-year estrangement. Giving up on having a mom in their life is not something that any child would wish for themselves, I don’t think. I certainly did not. I am so grateful that I have her back, even though she doesn’t remember who I am. I work around that, though, and sometimes I am tempted to tell her that I married Wayne Gretzky, as that is what she wished for me when I was twelve.
Part of the process of re-situating my mom includes selling her condo. My sister and I have been on many cleaning missions there in the last year, sorting through Tupperware, treasures, and everything in between (anyone need roller skates?). On a recent sorting session, I came across a letter.
Written in 2001, it was from my mom’s old school friend, affectionately nicknamed Bunty. They had met when they were 18, in their first year of nursing school. I remember seeing Bunty once, in the late 1970s when I was still a young girl. When I found the letter, I immediately wondered if Bunty knew what had happened to her long-time friend, or if she had spent the past few years wondering and assuming the worst.
Bunty’s phone number in Alberta was easy enough to find, but her letter sat on my desk for a few weeks while I summoned the courage to call. The story of me and my mom is such a complicated one, and I’m never sure how much our extended family and friends know about it, or how they might respond to the daughter that walked away from her unwell mother.
Today, I dialed Bunty’s number. I didn’t realize that my hands were sweating until I saw the smudge of black ink from where one hand rested on her letter. A bright, clear voice said, “This is who?”
Speaking with my mom’s dear friend was like opening a door to a time when my mom wasn’t sick, when she was curious and social and drawn to all the fun things that young women do. I heard about the Ellen that Bunty knew: how she was always there for her and could keep a secret to the death, how she was a vibrant part of a lively family, how she was wonderful. Bunty said it twice, “she was a wonderful, wonderful person, your mom.”
We talked for 40 minutes, and then I hung up the phone and had a good, hard cry. The conversation had been lovely, but more than that, I now had affirmation that my mom had been a loyal and beloved friend. Pre-illness, pre-all-the-crap-that-would-tumble-from-her-mouth, and so many years ago, she was different. It seems so silly that I didn’t know that, yet I only ever saw the person who existed after the nastiness of schizophrenia had come calling. But now I had something new to hold in my heart: a sliver of a life lived before I was born, and that surely still exists in the woman, my mom, even now.